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Jarawa: life on the edge

While recent reports suggest a surge in Jarawa population, interactions with the outside world, including plans for a 240km rail line through their reserve, put the very existence of the Andaman's ancient Negrito tribe at risk

Jarawa fish on a coral reef in the Bay of Bengal. Photographs by Thierry Falise/Getty Images
Jarawa fish on a coral reef in the Bay of Bengal. Photographs by Thierry Falise/Getty Images

It’s late in the afternoon, and at the office of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), villagers and Samiti members are recalling the time when people would not dare venture out after sundown.

We are in the hamlet of Kadamtala, about 90km from Port Blair, and deep inside the 700 sq. km forest reserve of the Jarawa, one of four ancient Negrito tribal communities indigenous to the Andaman Islands. Anthropologists believe these tropical forests on the way to Kadamtala and beyond have been home to the Jarawa for 30,000-50,000 years.

On full-moon nights, say the hamlet’s non-Jarawa residents, their fears would multiply. For their fruit trees, granaries and hen coops would be easy pickings for the hunter-gatherers.

Members of AAJVS, a government body formed in 1975 for the welfare and development of tribes indigenous to the Andaman archipelago, refuse to term this stealing; they know that the Jarawa are, in fact, the original inhabitants. “They have no idea of our laws and rules, nor do they care for the boundaries set by us," says tribal welfare officer Anup Mondol. The villagers are settlers, mostly refugees from present-day Bangladesh, who have been settled there by the government since India gained independence.

“At night, we knew from the howling of dogs that the Jarawa were here. In the dark, the village dogs would keep barking and keep us awake," says Bhajan Biswas. “People who couldn’t reach their homes by the evening would spend the night at the jetty office. Nobody had the courage to be on the road, especially with the rising moon." Refugee settlers, caught between the political upheavals of their homeland and the unknown perils of a faraway island, feared being attacked by the Jarawa.

At low tide at the end of each day, the Jarawa go in small groups to catch fish. The women use fishing nets and the men use bows and arrows.
At low tide at the end of each day, the Jarawa go in small groups to catch fish. The women use fishing nets and the men use bows and arrows.

But Jarawa resistance to interaction with outsiders, though fierce, was destined to fail.

Invasions and interactions

The Jarawa have seen regular incursions and invasions into their territory since the late 18th century. These interactions with modern civilization peaked after the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), built in the 1970s, cut through the heart of their reserve forests and brought in busloads of refugee settlers. This led to the spread of alien, life-threatening diseases among the small, aboriginal population; a slow, systemic change in their lifestyles; and conflicts with settlers-turned-poachers. Moreover, many Jarawa were killed fighting their aboriginal rivals, the Great Andamanese, as well as the British, who would often use sniffer dogs to hunt them down. One such punitive expedition in 1925 reportedly killed at least 37 Jarawas. The Jarawa-Great Andamanese rivalry, which the British exploited, is centuries old—in the late 1960s, the Great Andamanese were shifted to the tiny Strait Island, where only about 50 of them continue to live, and the Jarawa took over many of the sites they vacated.

Through the 20th century, government-approved “contact" missions ended up spreading disease and alcohol and tobacco addiction among forest-dwellers. They have been wooed with gifts like fruits, fish, iron implements, utensils and red pieces of cloth, among other things, eroding their resistance to outsiders. Evidence of their abject surrender in the face of mass tourism came in 2012 when a video surfaced, showing naked Jarawa women and children dancing on the ATR for food. Sexual exploitation has become part of their precarious existence.

A Jarawa reserve morning convoy. Photo: Shamik Bag/Mint

Even though there has been a clampdown on the “human safaris" offered by private tourist agencies, recent news reports suggest another front of interaction could open up between the tribals and industrial modernity. In February, The Indian Express reported that the railway ministry is planning to connect South Andaman Island’s Port Blair with Diglipur in North Andaman Island—two points of the proposed 240km rail journey that would straddle the Jarawa reserve forests. In a report published in Mint in March, Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ (ANI) lieutenant governor Jagdish Mukhi said he wanted the proposal expedited.

According to ANI member of Parliament Bishnu Pada Ray, the aims of the proposal are: 1) strategic (Andaman Islands are near international waters); 2) the convenience of the settler population surrounding the Jarawa reserve forests; and 3) tourism. “About half of ANI’s 500,000 population will be serviced by the rail route," says the Bharatiya Janata Party MP on phone. I ask why the sea route from Port Blair to Diglipur is not being popularized, but Ray sidesteps the query. When asked if the rail route, like the ATR, will once again cut through the Jarawa reserve, Ray accuses me of being a journalist “looking for masala", before hanging up abruptly. Though details on the exact rail route aren’t available, local experts like John Robert Babu, who heads the Port Blair-based television news production company Tv24, says, “A rail route that bypasses the Jarawa reserve isn’t possible." His view is echoed by Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle newspaper.

The Andaman Trunk Road, which runs alongside Jarawa territory, seen from a public bus.

The numbers story

The Jarawa population was 468 in 1901, according to estimates quoted by noted anthropologist Sita Venkateswar in her 2004 book, Development And Ethnocide: Colonial Practices In The Andaman Islands. By 1931, it had plummeted to 70. The numbers have risen in recent decades: owing to strictly-enforced regulations, affirmative government action, and support from local, national and international civil society and tribal rights non-governmental organizations. Mondol puts the number of Jarawas now at over 450. Navlendra Kumar Singh, director of tribal welfare, ANI, says the current count is 471.

“The population has increased but the Jarawa are desperately fighting for their survival today. Anthropologists have noted that when any low-density population comes into contact with a high-density population, the former are always in danger of getting wiped out," says Ratan Chandra Kar, a physician and retired deputy director (tribal health and welfare) of the ANI administration, sitting in his apartment in Port Blair.

Kar is widely respected as someone who has dedicated much of his life as a doctor to caring for the Jarawa—some even credit the rise in Jarawa population to his devotion. The apartment is crammed with documents on his work with the Jarawa. His seminal 2013 book, The Jarawas Of The Andamans, gives a detailed account of the illnesses and ailments that have struck these people, and the successes and failures of treatment.

Tourist convoy vehicles in the Jarawa reserve area. Photo: Shamik Bag/Mint

The Great Andamanese, once rivals of the Jarawa, have seen their population fall from a few thousand before a colonial takeover of their land in the mid-19th century, to less than 50 now—a vestige of population left without its language, culture, identity and pride. The increase of the Jarawa population to 471 is encouraging but it doesn’t stave off the danger of extinction.

“If the rail route comes up, you can very well write off the Jarawa," Samir Acharya, of the Society for Andaman & Nicobar Ecology (SANE), puts it bluntly. Based out of a popular home-appliances shop that he runs in Port Blair, Acharya, together with the Bombay Natural History Society and the Pune-based non-governmental organization Kalpavriksh, had led a sustained campaign from the late 1990s against the ATR, one of the biggest vectors of outside intervention into Jarawa territory, according to Pankaj Sekhsaria of Kalpavriksh.

In 2002, following a Supreme Court order, the ANI government introduced a number of restrictions for the use of the ATR. Though the court had ordered it closed, this never really happened. Instead, there are timing restrictions, a convoy system to ferry outsiders, and a ban on vehicles stopping.

“The Jarawas have survived for 40,000 years without our help. They might survive through numbers but, like the Great Andamanese, who are nearly extinct and have gone through immense cultural change, they will no longer be Jarawa. Who are we to do this to them?" asks Acharya.

The Jarawa should be left to decide their own fate, argues the writer Madhusree Mukerjee, author of The Land Of Naked People: Encounters With Stone Age Islanders. “If you look at the history of the Great Andamanese and the Onge, assimilation has been devastating for them. It has led to depression, alcoholism, disease, sexual slavery," she says. Mukerjee had spoken to a Great Andamanese woman a couple of years ago. “They should not become like us," was the warning the woman had held out for the Jarawa, Mukerjee says. “The impact of the railway line will be disastrous. One can see this from the impact of the ATR."

It is a narrative of the tussle of civilizations and these diminutive, dark-skinned people with curly matted hair are currently outnumbered, with a ratio of about one Jarawa to 1,000 settlers in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

A young hunter making a rope for his bow from the stem of a wild plant. Photographs by Thierry Falise/Getty Images

Biscuits and bows

In the earliest reported interaction, on 26 December 1789, British surveyor R.H. Colebrooke was cruising along the South Andaman coast when he spotted a Negrito man on the beach. Unlike what had happened on a previous occasion, the naked aborigine did not run away, hesitatingly accepting Colebrooke’s gift of a knife and biscuits in exchange for his bow and arrow. When the British returned in 1858 with the aim of setting up a penal colony in Andaman, the arrow was pointing at them—the marauding white man had, by then, become the target of the islanders. There are recorded instances of the Jarawa sparing the lives of Indian convicts used by the British to work on road building or forest clearance; they targeted the masters who barked orders.

The British struck back, with the help and guidance of a few members of the Great Andamanese. In her book, Mukerjee likens the British-led Jarawa-hunting expeditions to tiger hunts of a later period: “The lying in wait, the shots in the dark, the following of blood tracks in the morning, even the taking of cubs." The British would often take away the Negrito children from their parents. Quite a few Jarawa children died in British custody, of minor illnesses.

Linguistic studies have found that Jarawa was a catch-all term used by the Great Andamanese to describe other aboriginal groups, including the Onge population in Little Andaman and the virtually-uncontacted Sentinelese in North Sentinel island. To the Great Andamanese, the Jarawa—originally known as the Ang—too were outsiders.

Estimates suggest the Great Andamanese numbered 2,000-6,000 when the British first arrived in the 1780s. Within 50 years of the establishment of the penal colony, their population had fallen drastically, to around 625, according to George Weber, the late scholar of Andaman tribes. Four years after independence, in 1951, the number had plummeted to 25.

These Pygmy Negrito people, Weber said in a 2002 interview to the United Press International news agency, are a “remnant population representing an early—perhaps the earliest—migration out of Africa of modern Homo sapiens".

The British settled in the South Andaman Island with convicts, jailors and workers in tow, backed by the firepower of guns and cannons, bringing diseases like hepatitis, measles, pneumonia, and even venereal diseases, for which the aboriginal medicine system could offer no cure.

It was in May 1859 that the Great Andamanese resistance against the British collapsed. The day is connected with the treachery of Dudhnath Tiwari, “Life Convict No. 276" at the Andaman jail. In 1858, Tiwari had escaped from prison and found himself among the Great Andamanese, who took him in, fed him, taught him their language and allowed him to marry one of their girls. A year later, Tiwari, on getting wind of a major armed offensive planned by the aboriginals against the British, left the forest, leaving his pregnant wife behind. He turned himself in to the British with news of the impending attack in exchange for a promise of pardon. On 17 May, when the Great Andamanese attacked the British with their rudimentary weapons, the white settlers were ready with their guns and cannons. Many natives died. Tiwari survived, and was duly pardoned. The fate of Tiwari’s wife and child is not known.

The event marked a turning point in British relations with the South Andaman groups.

In Port Blair city, a monument to this Battle of Aberdeen commemorates “those Andamanese aborigines who bravely fought…against the oppressive and retaliatory policy of the British regime".

On my fourth visit to the Andaman Islands in March last year, I became interested in the case of a particular Jarawa infant boy. The boy, news reports said, had a complexion much lighter than that of the Jarawa and had reportedly been drowned in the sea by a tribe member in November 2015. It seemed the child’s father was an outsider. Kar, who has been treating the Jarawa for nearly two decades, tells me he has heard of “honour killings" earlier too. The case was tantalizingly poised when I visited.

One of the warning signboards posted by authorities on the ATR, along Jarawa territory.

While the suspected murderer, a Jarawa man, continues to roam free, the man thought to be the child’s father—a Tamil villager, Subramani, from Tirur village, adjacent to the off-limits Jarawa reserve forest—was arrested for violating the government law forbidding interaction with the Jarawa. At his Port Blair office, the superintendent of police, South Andaman, Atul Kumar Thakur, outlined how the police and administration have strictly followed the no-contact, hands-off policy with the Jarawa, but he wouldn’t comment on the Jarawa man alleged to be the murderer. “Not a single Jarawa has been arrested in history. They are peace-loving, honest people who stay within their territories. I can’t comment beyond this and I hope you’ll understand," Thakur said.

B.K. Tiwari, director of the tribal welfare department, brushed aside my queries, saying, “Everything is out in the open. Why dig further?" I decided to travel to Tirur, about 2 hours from Port Blair.

The road leading to the Herbatabad-Tirur region is flanked by coconut, betel and areca plantations and slanted-roof village houses. Just outside the village are swaying wild tropical rainforests. A Jarawa protection police post stands at the very edge of the village, beyond which the reserve begins—closed to non-Jarawas.

In Tirur, I spoke to Sanatan Ojha, Subramani’s landlord. He alleged that the Jarawa often came into the village looking for food and would barter crab meat and even banned venison for a bottle of alcohol.

One evening, some Jarawa confronted Ojha when he found them plucking bananas from his garden. “Is this your land?" they said aggressively in broken Hindi.

“This illegal barter trade between villagers, often done by hiring outsiders, and the Jarawa has been going on for some years now. It picked up after the Tirur Jarawa stopped being hostile," says Giles, of Andaman Chronicle.

The Jarawa living in the forests around Tirur were the last to give up the fight against outsiders in the late 1990s. Villagers still recount in whispers the killings and assaults on both sides of the divide. The Tirur Jarawa, as they are known, gave up hostilities after the Jarawa living in the Middle Strait and Kadamtala regions gave in. Most of the Jarawa were pacified through a mix of force, fear and gifts.

Ratan Chandra Kar. Photo: Shamik Bag/Mint

Enmei & the end of hostilities

Crucial to this end of hostilities is the story of a Jarawa boy, Enmei. On the night of 14 April 1996, Bijoy Baroi, a Kadamtala villager, heard some footsteps in his garden—it was the Jarawas, picking fruit from Baroi’s trees. On being discovered, the Jarawas ran away, leaving behind a boy whose right leg was broken. The boy was taken to the GB Pant Hospital in Port Blair.

Enmei was given privileged treatment—for the government, it was an opportunity to showcase the modern world to the Jarawa, and prove that the government and outsiders aren’t bad people. He recovered physically and during the five-month stay, mostly in the hospital, got hooked to the television and radio sets in his room, as also to cooked food and clothes (the no-contact policy is for outsiders, not the government welfare staff. Even now the government is the official face of interaction with the Jarawa). Kar’s memoir mentions that he learnt rudimentary Hindi from the administrative staff and was taught to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai. The book has a photo of Enmei in a touristy T-shirt and Bermuda shorts.

The boy returned to the forest, but on 28 September 1997, he led a group of young Jarawa boys and girls out of the bushes in a peace overture. That interaction at the Kadamtala jetty signalled an informal end to centuries-old hostilities.

Travelling down the ATR became less perilous for outsiders. In effect, the journey through the tall forested land became an elegy to its ancient people. The sight of naked Jarawa women and children running after my state bus, arms outstretched, shouting “do, do (give, give)" in Hindi, during a visit in 2006, remains a poignant memory of a proud people reduced to begging for packets of chips and biscuits—often thrown at them by tourists. Kar’s documentation has multiple entries on the number of times the Jarawa have fallen prey to alien diseases since hostilities came to an end.

It is nearly evening at Kadamtala when I ask Mondol, the AAJVS’ tribal welfare officer, about Enmei. That young Jarawa boy, who introduced his people to the outside world, is now a pensive middle-aged man, I’m informed. “Enmei rarely comes out of the forest," says Mondol. “He stays away from the road and can mostly be seen near the sea hunting for fish. He stays on his own."

The irony in Enmei’s story lingers as the last convoy of vehicles prepares to leave the forest. Soon, the road will be closed to vehicular traffic and the Jarawa will have their ancestral land all to themselves—if only for the night.

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